There has been quite a bit of discussion on MHR recently about the quality of the Broncos' drafts under the direction of Mike Shanahan. Many here believe that Mike Shanahan, the General Manager, is the main reason that Mike Shanahan, the Head Coach, was relieved of his duties last month by Pat Bowlen despite his three-year contract and pair of Vince Lombardi Trophies. There has not been much disagreement on this front. Yet the question of whether Shanny was a successful drafter or not, or whether he did an adequate job of retaining the talent he drafted has been contested quite a bit, and rightfully so. It's one thing to draft quality players, it's another to develop them properly, and it's yet another thing to hold onto that talent as their careers progress.
Judging drafts past is naturally a subjective matter, as they can be evaluated in countless ways by different minds producing different opinions, whether subtly so or polar opposites. Broncoman's excellent post showed that Shanny drafted quite a few Pro Bowlers, in fact at a better rate than the rest of the league during his time here. In my own post earlier this week, I tried to show just how bad the 2003 and 2004 Drafts were for Denver. Admittedly, it was neither a thorough nor exact study, and I wanted to figure out a way to look at Shanny's Drafts in greater depth and with higher accuracy.
Each year, there are many variables that can affect a draft strategy, and countless others that may alter its ultimate results. Drafting position, needs (or lack thereof), salary cap room and number of picks are a few major factors on Draft Day. Whether a team retains its own draft choices down the road is influenced by depth, injury history, salary demands and cap room, among other factors. But ultimately and most simply, whether a player is a good draft choice comes down to whether he becomes a good NFL player. Of course, "good NFL player" is about as subjective as it gets, so in this study I will examine a player's longevity and how many games he played in determining his overall quality. While this does not account for whether a player is a starter or a reserve, or whether he makes a Pro Bowl or ten, or goes onto the Hall of Fame, it does consider whether a player was good enough to stick around for awhile.
Considering only a player's longevity will surely prompt some questions, such as "What about someone who got hurt like TD or Terry Pierce?" or "How can we evaluate players who are still active?" As for the first question, injuries are a part of the NFL and every team experiences them. TD played for parts of 8 seasons, which, although makes some question his HOF candidacy, is a relatively long career. The average NFL player's career lasts for merely 3.5 years. As for active players, I will answer that question below. But really, I think longevity shows quite a bit about a player's quality. For the most part, a player does not stick around for many seasons or dress for many games if he is not a talented football player. No, a first-round draft choice who becomes a perennial backup isn't an ideal result, but if he plays in the NFL for 8 seasons, then he is still a good draft choice. Perhaps he is not a good value at his spot in the draft, but he is certainly worthy of being chosen in the NFL Draft. Maybe he was drafted too high or too low and may not have been worth that pick, but he was definitely worth a pick.
Now onto my data. First off, I looked at each Denver draft from the 1995-2008 seasons on NFL.com, and then noted how many seasons each player's career lasted, how many games he dressed for and how many of those came as a Denver Bronco. There is quite a bit to look at, but if you're patient I think you will learn a lot about the effectiveness of Denver's draft history under Mike Shanahan. Let's take a look at the chart!
|Avg Career |
|Career Games |
|Games Per |
|% Played |
|% of Max |
|% of Max
Okay, I know that's a lot to throw at you, so I'm going to explain each column to show you its meaning...
- Year - this represents each draft class
- Picks(Active) - first is the number of draft choices the Broncos used each year, followed in parentheses by the number of players who are still active NFL players.
- Total Player Years Cumulatively, this shows how many years the players from each draft class have been/were active NFL players. (Keep in mind, some players can be active for a season yet never play.) So for example, the 3 players Denver drafted in 1997 have accounted for 22 seasons. The plus sign(+) indicates that this number is still growing, as Trevor Pryce is still active.
- Average Career In Years This is simply the average of how long each player lasted/has lasted in the NFL. Again, plus signs indicate that this number is still growing. Remember, the average NFL career lasts 3.5 years. Obviously the 2006-2008 classes have not been around long enough to have average NFL careers (3.5 years), but they should take care of that in short order.
- Total Games This is the total number of games played by every player from each draft class. Again, the 1997 Draft Class has totaled 267 career games, while the plus sign (+) indicates that Trevor Pryce is still playing.
Career Games Per Player This is the average of how many games each player drafted played in the NFL.
Games Per Player/Year This is the number of total games played by each draft class, divided by the number of Total Player Years. This shows how often during each 16-game season the average player was active. This will help to weed out those players who were active during a season but didn't play that much, if at all. This also will weed out those players that never made it at all - the Avg Career In Years column already shows whether a draft class had longevity in terms of seasons played. This statistic shows how much those players who stuck around actually dressed. For example, the average player from the 1998 draft class had a long career (5.9 years), but those players only dressed for 9.9 out of every 16 games. Again, this does not include players who never made it like Curtis Alexander, who played in 0 games and had 0 seasons in the NFL. Why look at it this way? Well, a player like Alexander who never makes it already brings down the Average Career In Years of his draft class. This statistic shows how much those other guys actually dressed.
- Games w/Denver This indicates how many games the players from each draft class actually suited up for the Denver Broncos.
- % Played w/Denver Shows what percentage of each player's games were played as Denver Broncos. For example, Brian Griese has played in 93 games, 53 as a Bronco. Individually, his percentage as a Bronco is 57%. Collectively for the 1997 Draft Class, they have played 85.8% of their careers in Denver.
- Max Games Shows how many games each draft class could have played within the seasons they were active. This is Total Player Years multiplied by 16, or the number of games in a regular NFL season. Again, this will eliminate players who never made the roster.
- % of Max Games Indicates the percentage of games that the players in each draft class actually dressed for, out of the games in the seasons they were active. For example, Peyton Hillis could have played in 16 games, but due to his injury only played in 12. Therefore, his % of max games is 75%. Carlton Powell does not count at all, as he was not active and is still considered a rookie by the NFL.
- % of Max w/Den This is the number of Games w/Denver, divided by the Max Games, which shows how much each draft class actually dressed for the Denver Broncos.
So, there you have it. Now let's go across one of the rows so you can interpret the statistics of each draft class. I'll stick with the 1997 Draft Class for brevity's sake (I know, we're long past that now). Again, Denver selected 3 players in 1997 - Trevor Pryce, Dan Neil and Corey Gilliard. Only Pryce is still active. Pryce has played 12 seasons, Neil played for 8 and Gilliard was active 2. That's 22 seasons and growing combined, or Total Player Years. The 1997 Draft Class averaged 7.3 seasons so far, and possibly growing. Pryce has dressed for 158 games (121 for Denver), Neil did for 108 (all for Denver), while Gilliard only dressed for 1 game (with Cincinatti in 1997). That gives the 1997 Draft Class 267 games and growing, or an average of 89 per player (obviously Gilliard has quite a negative effect, but we'll take care of that in the next column). Among those 22 combined seasons, the 1997 Draft Class has dressed for 12.2 games per season of their respective careers.
Now we get to player retention. Trevor Pryce played in Denver for 9 seasons, and has been in Baltimore for 3 more. Dan Neil played his entire career in Denver, while Corey Gilliard played his one game for Cincinatti. Therefore, the 1997 Draft Class has played 85.8% of their NFL games as Denver Broncos. As a group, these three players were active for 22 seasons, which made them eligible to play in 352 games. Of these 352 games, they played in 267, which translates to 75.9%. Since Pryce and Gilliard played games with other franchises, the 1997 Draft Class has dressed for the Broncos in 65.1% of the games in seasons they've been active.
Ok, I hope that wasn't too confusing. So, what does this chart show us?
- The 2003 and 2004 Draft Classes were, as we suspected, horrendous. Their careers have lasted an average of 2.8 years (and only 5 active players to try and raise that number in coming years). That is clearly not good, as the 2006 Class has already surpassed them. Once we look at games, though, things start to look even worse for the '03 and '04 Classes - they've averaged a pitiful 17.6 and 19.2 games per player per career, respectively. They have already been surpassed on that front by the 2007 Class, even though Moss and Crowder have not dressed for several games and the benefit of a multiple-year head start! Granted, the '07 Class has only 4 players and therefore can, on average, easily have better production than the 10 players selected in each of the '03 and '04 Drafts. But then, we look at Games Per Player/Year and it gets really ugly. From this chart, we can see that a good draft class should produce about 11 or 12 games per player/year - 9 out of the 14 drafts Shanny presided over have give at least 11 games per player, per year. Those '03 and '04 Drafts have produced little more than half that, while the '05 and '95 Classes aren't much better.
- It gets worse! The 2003 Draft Class was the least fruitful of Shanny's drafts, and it's by quite a large margin. The '03 Class only dressed for a total of 94 games as Denver Broncos, cumulatively. Why is this? George Foster has dressed for 19 games since leaving, while Nick Eason has dressed for 61 games. Everyone else? They barely played at all. Terry Pierce was in uniform 18 times for Denver, Adrian Madise for 11. Can anyone remember anything useful beyond a special-teams tackle or kickoff return? I didn't think so.
- In most years, Shanny didn't draft that badly. As I mentioned, 9 of his 14 draft classes have played in at least 11 games per player/year in their careers (those who made it). However, those drafts that played less (most notably 1995, 1998, 2003 and 2004) created something of a talent vacuum in later years. I think this is very much to blame for the relatively poor (by Shanny standards) seasons of 2001, 2002, 2006, 2007 and 2008. There is a lack of homegrown talent due to the '03 and '04 Drafts, and the Broncos are paying the price. Of course, you may also notice that the '06, '07 and '08 Drafts are a harbinger of some strong times ahead. Obviously, most of us have surmised that anyway - it reinforces the sentiment that it's a shame Shanny won't be around to see the recent influx of talent to its ultimate fruition.
The Broncos failed to retain their '98, '99 and '01 Draft Classes. Players like Brian Griese, Trey Teague, Nate Wayne, Montae Reagor, Lennie Friedman, David Bowens, Desmond Clark, Billy Miller, Reggie Hayward and Nick Harris account for the bulk of that. Was it a poor decision to let all of them go? Of course not, but most of these players have had very good careers and some would have helped Denver greatly (Bowens, Hayward, Harris stand out in my mind). These should be the grizzled veterans of the Broncos, not the bunch of FA signings and never-been's currently "leading" the way. Perhaps if we had kept Desmond Clark we wouldn't have needed to spend a #2 pick on Tony Scheffler. I love Scheffler, but I think I'd trade him for Des Clark and the draft pick we used on him. This is a freshly formed opinion, so I may change my mind on this one...but you get the idea. Again, not all of these players could/should have been retained, but the loss of so much talent results in more costly endeavors into free agency and forces a team to draft for needs rather than to add quality (filling holes rather than best talent available).
- Obviously, the 2006 Class is exceptional. But I'm glad we can show how that relates to other years. The '06 Class has already played more games for Denver (207 and counting) than the '05, '04, '03, '98 and '95 Classes, and just one fewer game than the '01 Class. That is remarkable.
- The 2008 Class sure did play a lot. Again, I'm not making you fall off your chair here. But keep in mind that the % of Max Games should rise as a Class ages for several years, as the players mature from rookies to veterans who dress for every game they're healthy, even if they don't start or make major contributions. A player's rookie year is generally when they play the least, yet the '08 Class exceeded the '95, '98, '03 and '04 Classes already. The '08 Draft Class should only stretch out their lead over those other classes in that department for several years to come, while hopefully catching up to some of the other groups.
The 1995 Class was better than these numbers show.The reality is that the 1995 Draft Class produced several bad players except for the remarkably good choices of TD and Byron Chamberlain. Jamie Brown, Ken Brown, Phil Yeboah-Kodie and Fritz Fequire brought little-or-nothing to the table, while Steve Russ contributed to a couple of Championships in a backup/ST role. The caveat, of course, is that Denver had no picks before the 4th round. So, although the Broncos didn't get production across the board, TD as a 6th-round pick and Chamberlain as a 7th-rounder had spectacular careers. I realize this goes against what I said earlier about slotting and value, but the circumstances are quite unusual - no high picks, tremendous returns out of the back end.
Well, that's my take for now. I know it's a lot of data to digest and a lot of writing, but I felt a bit guilty about posting something the other day without perfect numbers and explanations behind it. This should do the trick, and I believe it shows just how bad the '03 and '04 Draft Classes are/were. It also confirms that Denver did a poor job of retaining quality talent at times and later paid the price. I hope this will spur some to discuss further and educate even more. I plan on producing some more studies, perhaps comparing Denver's results to other teams...but this is it for now. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoy reading your posts!
Update Friday 11:05am - Somehow, some way I managed to omit Maurice Clarett from my numbers (I'm not sure how that's possible...perhaps a mental block). The Broncos drafted 6 players in 2005, not 5 - this drags down the average career in years. My apologies for this error. I have now made the proper changes to reflect the draft results including Clarett. I also found an error in the Games Per Player/Year in 2005 - that Class has actually averaged 13.3 games per player/year - thus raising the number of draft classes over 11 games/player/year to 9 out of 14, rather than the 8 out of 14 I originally noted. Again, I have made the proper changes to reflect this.